Michael T. Judd served as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Uruguay where he lived on the border for some time in Rivera and Artigas, border towns with Quaraí and Santana do Livramento, Rio Grande do Sul. M.A. in Hispanic Linguistics (2006) B.A. in Spanish Teaching with minors in Portuguese and English as a Second Language from Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, USA. Master's Thesis: "The Origins and Identification of Mixed Dialects along the Brazilian -Uruguayan Border: A Review of Studies in Contact Linguistics" Originally from Madison, New Jersey, currently living in Spanish Fork, Utah.





The Fronteiriço Dialect of Uruguay: 

Origins, Investigations, and Opportunities[1]


Uruguay, one of the smallest countries in all of South America, was previously believed to be a monolingual country. But when linguists began to study and describe the Spanish there around the middle of the last century, they became aware of significant linguistic hybridization which had developed all along the northern border with Brazil. A shift in linguistic dominance from Portuguese to Spanish took place only after the independence of Uruguay due to the establishment of settlements along the border, giving rise to the peculiar border speech commonly identified today as either portuñol, fronterizo, or DPU (dialectos portugueses del Uruguay).

The reality of the linguistic contact situation is in fact not the influence of Portuguese on the Spanish language, but rather the influence of Spanish on a well-established Portuguese base. Research on the resulting border dialect has been limited to few researchers who have studied it from the perspectives of dialectology, language contact, geographical linguistics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexicology. Studies in sociolinguistics and language policy have also been done in order to better understand and assess the linguistic situation. In this article, a brief summary will be provided of the history of the region as it relates to contact between Portuguese and Spanish and the emergence of this very intriguing mixed dialect spoken all along the Brazilian-Uruguayan border. The terminology chosen to describe this mixed dialect will also be addressed as well as the areas of its influence or usage. And finally, there is an assessment of the studies performed to-date and ideas for further research opportunities.

History of the region

Alma Pedretti de Bolón (1983) underlined the connection between history and language when she wrote, “la historia de una lengua va unida indisolublemente a la historia del pueblo que la habla” (p. 19). Elizaincín et al. (1987) also affirmed the following concerning the particular fronterizo dialect, “vano será pues tratar de entender una situación tan compleja como la que estudiamos sin un mínimo marco de referencia histórico-sociólogo [sic] (p. 10). With this in mind, and in order to understand the interaction between the two languages under consideration and the peoples who spoke them, it is necessary to retrace history as far back as the disputes between Spain and Portugal upon discovering the New World.

Jesuit priests from Spain were some of the first Europeans to inhabit the vast and lush region constituting Rio Grande do Sul, and parts of Paraguay, Argentina, and Uruguay, establishing themselves at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Despite their physical presence in the region, however, they seemed to have little impact on the linguistic reality of the area. According to Fuertes Álvarez (1964), “los jesuitas poco influyeron en la lengua… puesto que, en vez de hacer estudiar el español a los indios eran ellos los que aprendían el guaraní” (p. 362).

The Portuguese boldly founded Colonia do Sacramento in 1680. The colony was located directly across the River Plate from Buenos Aires and was intended to challenge Spanish power and authority in the region. Treaties continued to establish and reestablish territorial boundaries to the north and east of the territory known as the Banda Oriental, what is today the country of Uruguay. Although the new boundaries pushed the Portuguese back, they did nothing to reduce Portugal’s desire to add this region to its domains.

In 1816, Portugal annexed all of the Oriental Province of Uruguay under the name of Província Cisplatina. This state of affairs lasted until 1828 when the nation of Brazil (independent from Portugal since 1822) finally recognized the independence of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay. This Portuguese-Brazilian occupation represented an increase in the number of Brazilian settlers in all of Uruguay. Rona (1965) explains the effect of this occupation as follows:

[Esta] invasión portuguesa… trajo consigo un notable incremento de la colonización portuguesa hasta los últimos confines meridionales, en las orillas del Río de la Plata. Obtenida la independencia definitiva, esta corriente colonizadora no decayó, sino que terminó por poblar con portugueses y brasileños todo el norte del Uruguay. Por lo tanto, la base étnica y, en consecuencia, lingüística de toda esta zona es portuguesa, no española. (p. 8)

The presence of Brazilian Portuguese along the newly established border became an issue of increasing concern. Accordingly, with “una clara conciencia… de que [era] necesario ‘defender’ la lengua española” (Elizaincín, 1984, p. 94), the Uruguayan Parliament founded, between 1853 and 1862, a number of rival settlements on the border including Santa Rosa (now Bella Unión), Cuareim (now Artigas), Treinta y Tres, Villa Artigas (now Río Branco), and Villa Ceballos (now Rivera).

Education was used as an instrument to promote Uruguayan nationalism and, specifically, the spread of Spanish as Uruguay’s national language. José Pedro Varela (1845–1879), a very influential educator at the time, testified concerning the overwhelming Brazilian influences to the north. As noted by Elizaincín (1992a), Varela alleged that el Brasil…domina con sus súbditos…casi todo el Norte de la República: en toda esta zona, hasta el idioma nacional se ha perdido ya [italics added], puesto que es el portugués el que se habla con más generalidad” (p. 99). In light of the fact that the border population was overwhelmingly Brazilian, Elizaincín wisely clarifies the linguistic situation reported by Varela, “El idioma español no se habló más que esporádicamente; en este sentido suena hoy un poco ingenua la afirmación de Varela … por cuanto no pudo haberse perdido lo que nunca estuvo definitivamente afirmado” (p.100). Elizaincín (1984) asserts that “diversas medidas tomadas en el campo demográfico, poblacional y educativo fueron insertando el español en las zonas en que el portugués había estado desde siempre, por así decirlo” (p. 94).

The construction of schools to counteract the linguistic dominance of Brazilian Portuguese in border communities took place mainly between 1867 and 1878, but concern for the learning of the national language continues today. Countless Brazilian citizens still live, work, and buy land in Uruguay due to an extremely permeable border between the two countries. Data showing the establishment of Uruguayans, however, in Rio Grande do Sul and Brazil is not clear.

Communication with the border communities remained irregular and difficult as recently as the middle of last century. According to Rona (1963), “la carretera de Montevideo a Rocha se abrió apenas en 1940 y la de Rivera solamente en 1953” (p. 204). The border towns have thus grown together with hardly any contact with the major cities of the interior of their respective countries and, therefore, “las ciudades a todo lo largo de la frontera son gemelas y constituyen virtualmente, en cada caso, una sola ciudad” (p. 204). The actual border between many of these twin cities is nothing more than a common street which displays the Brazilian flag on one side and the Uruguayan flag on the other. Rivera and Santana do Livramento typify such cities. In other twin communities, the national border is simply a stream or a river whose crossing is facilitated by a bridge, as is the case with Artigas and Quaraí.

In summary it is apparent, as explained by Elizaincín (1984), that “la historia del español en la zona interior del Uruguay es, en realidad, un ejemplo de lucha constante con el portugués” (p. 93). But, once more, as Elizaincín et al. (1987) clarify, “no se trata de una influencia del portugués sobre el castellano (ya que no había aquí población hispánica antes de la llegada y establecimiento de los brasileños), sino, al revés, de la influencia del castellano sobre una base portuguesa” (p. 8). The Uruguayan settlers with their Spanish culture, heritage, and language saw the necessity to confront the influence of the Portuguese language and Brazilian culture within their own political boundaries."

If the Portuguese-speaking Brazilian population were already settled well across the border before Spanish-speaking Uruguayan nationalists began to establish themselves in significant numbers in the same area, then we must accept that the border dialect or fronterizo began to develop and emerge in the last 150 years. Furthermore, if the diffusion of the Portuguese language was apparent in 1853, it is unfortunate that more than a century should have to pass before linguists, such as Rona, encountered a border speech and began to identify and describe it. Since fronterizo is considered a linguistic anomaly, this lack of attention may be due to linguistic bias, purist views, or even prescriptive attitudes, such as those of José Pedro Varela and other linguistic policy makers promoting nationalism at the time.

Identification of the border dialect

A search of the literature reveals that the first linguist to investigate and describe the linguistic situation along the Brazilian-Uruguayan border was José Pedro Rona. His findings were communicated at the ‘I Congresso Brasileiro de Dialectologia e Etnografia’ in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, which took place from September 1 through 7, 1958 (published in 1963). In this first study, Rona (1963) observes that the dialect which has formed along the border is “una mezcla de portugués y español, pero que no es ni portugués ni español y resulta con frecuencia ininteligible tanto para los brasileños como para los uruguayos” (p. 208). Rona also seems to have been the first to record a name for the dialect. He noted, “[este] dialecto intermedio recibe aquí [en la frontera] el nombre de ‘dialecto fronterizo’” (p. 202). Fronterizo is still used as a reference term at the present.

Notwithstanding general acceptance of the term fronterizo, however, Elizaincín and others found an alternative designation for this dialect. The term which came to be preferred (Elizaincín, 1984) was dialectos portugueses del Uruguay (abbreviated DPU). Elizaincín et al. (1987) explain how and why they came to prefer the term DPU to that of fronterizo. First of all, the term dialecto “se justifica por ser, quizás el más neutro de todos y en el sentido diatópico, más o menos tradicional, forma de hablar peculiar de una zona determinada del territorio nacional” (p. 13). Secondly, the plural dialectos is meaningful in that “responde a nuestra visión del fenómeno como una situación intrínsicamente variable” (p. 13). Finally, the adjective portugueses explains that “se trata de formas mixtas de base preponderantemente portuguesa, las que, sin embargo evidencian fuerte influencia del español” (Elizaincín et al., 1987, p. 14).

According to Elizaincín et al. (1987), the most common designations of this border speech or, in other words, “las formas como los mismos hablantes las reconocen” (p. 12), are carimbão, basano, brasilero, and portuñol. The first two terms “sólo se conoce[n] en ciertas zonas rurales del norte del departamento de Tacuarembó; no [son] por lo tanto designación común en toda la zona fronteriza” (p. 12). Brasilero is defined as “la forma más neutra en el estrato popular” (p. 13), and portuñol is characterized as “la designación más neutra que puede oírse de miembros cultos de la comunidad urbana” (p. 12). These authors essentially reject the term fronterizo since in their opinion, “la designación es demasiado amplia: en realidad cualquier lenguaje que surja y se use en una frontera es un ‘fronterizo’” (p. 13), and do not even include it as one of the terms used by the general native population to refer to this particular type of speech.

Geography of the border dialect

Rona (1965) has come to the conclusion that “la verdadera frontera lingüística entre el español y el portugués se encuentra en el Uruguay” (p. 8). However, concerning the existence of the unique border speech, he explains, “cuando examinamos la zona de encuentro de estas dos lenguas, observamos la ausencia total de una neta línea divisoria” (Rona, 1963, p. 202). According to Rona, then, there exists a fuzzy transition from Portuguese to Spanish. Elizaincín (1976) suggests the transition from Brazilian Portuguese to Uruguayan Spanish may be something similar to a linguistic continuum, as seen in northern Spain (see p. 123).

In addition to establishing the extent of Portuguese linguistic influence across the border, Rona (1963) also determined at first that there were basically three distinct zones of Portuguese influence (see p. 207). According to him, they ran all along the Brazilian-Uruguayan border and were mainly identifiable by their Uruguayan departamentos or provinces. Rona invited Brazilian linguists to study the phenomenon within Brazilian territory (all along their national border), but nothing has been done to date.

The challenge faced by the linguists who embarked on the first approximations to the understanding of the notable border speech was to capture the variability of the border dialects spoken throughout the entire region while also offering a composite picture of their general location and of the distribution of their isoglosses. Elizaincín et al. (1987) ultimately seem to understand this dilemma when they state, “quizás extremar la apreciación y decir que hay tantos ‘fronterizos’ como habitantes de la frontera no sería adecuado” (p. 13).

There is apparently an extremely large body of data which will be published with the Atlas Lingüístico del Uruguay. This project is yet unfinished; however, upon its completion linguistic maps will naturally also be provided. This corpus will represent the largest of its kind and will undoubtedly shed much light on this particular contact situation. It may as well open doors for new opportunities to study or compare and contrast in greater depth that which has been studied in the areas of phonetics, phonology, morphology, and lexicon. Without a doubt, all those who are interested in this branch of linguistics are looking forward to the discoveries and insights which are concealed for the moment in this project.


The fronterizo dialect as a whole may be defined not as a Portuguese influence on the Spanish language, but rather the influence of Spanish on a well-established Portuguese base. Uruguayans were confronted with the necessity to push back the Portuguese influence and fight against the flow of an opposing culture within their own political boundaries.

There is still much which may be discovered, clarified, or confirmed regarding fronterizo. Adolfo Elizaincín and Fritz Hensey both recognize the need to gather more data and acquire a larger corpus. The Atlas Lingüístico del Uruguay should provide additional reliable information which in turn can be compared to previous studies and findings. Studies of the morphology and syntax of fronterizo have received the most attention and are the most complete as is observed in Elizaincín et al. (1987). The postulation of simplification therein, which occurs not only in the morphology and the syntax of fronterizo, but also in the phonology, once again, warrants a larger corpus to confirm and advance this theory. The least amount of research has been dedicated to the lexicon.

The difficulty of finding monolingual fronterizo speakers is an obstacle in the study of the mixed dialects. Hensey (1972) expresses his concern that with increased education available to border residents “including knowledge of standard Spanish…it is doubtful if fronterizo will long continue as anyone’s sole language” (p. 78). In fact, much of the current research dedicated to the study of pure fronterizo has actually overlapped either intentionally or unintentionally with studies of language interference and bilingualism (see Hensey, 1972).

Hensey (1993) has recognized that “Uruguayan Portuguese is an obvious candidate for variation study” (p. 447). The study of variation is included in the sociolinguistic research which has been given considerable attention. Surveys and studies concerning language attitudes and language prestige as seen by speakers of the dialects have been ascertained by both Hensey and Elizaincín. Furthermore, Elizaincín has sought to compare DPU with other pidgin languages in order to establish relationships between the characteristics of DPU and language contact phenomena elsewhere. Other areas of research include the educational implications of the affect of imposing standard Spanish on fronterizo, the issue of language policy, and the option of standardization of the dialect. These topics may be discussed in more detail at a later time.

The vast majority of the research to date of the contact situation has been focused on locales closest to the border. Rivera has received most of the attention, but Elizaincín et al. (1987) expanded their range of survey from Artigas to Río Branco. Only the most recent publications have begun to look at other areas of the northern region where there has been intense language contact in the past. The distinct speech evidenced in these areas has been named español rural fronterizo (ERF) (see Elizaincín and Barrios, 1989), and still other forms of border speech have been recognized as “varieties of rural Spanish with no present-day contact with DPU … [but which] evidence a perceptible influence of Portuguese” (Elizaincín, 1995a, p. 119). These rural varieties of Uruguayan Spanish are located farther away southward from the border into the northern interior of Uruguay. Further studies could reveal residual influences of the contact which occurred between Spanish and Portuguese in these more isolated locations. Hence, one could come to the conclusion that there are still abundant opportunities to expand into areas which have received less attention and identify, describe, and study the effects of language contact. Nevertheless, if further studies of rural Spanish influenced by Portuguese are to be done, Hensey (1975) urges that they be done soon (see p. 59).

The Atlas Lingüístico del Uruguay is purportedly designed to cover the entire northeastern area of the country (see maps, Elizaincín, 1995b, pp. 222-223) which will shed light on phonetic, morphologic, lexical, and semantic phenomena. In regards to the longevity of DPU, Elizaincín (1995a) has wisely noted,

The processes of urbanization and the concomitant possibility of access to higher levels of instruction, involving closer contact with Spanish, are factors contributing to the displacement of Portuguese, to its perpetuation as a household language, and to its lack of prestige among those who are fluent in Spanish, and especially among monolinguals. (p.119)

Language policy among Uruguayans has always been that of protecting and maintaining national identity through the knowledge of Spanish as the national language.

Finally, as is mentioned by Rona (1963), it is a very real possibility that other mixed dialects exist in other Spanish-speaking countries which share borders with Brazil, the Coloso del Sur. Since that time, however, no attention has been given to these opportunities for further research. Exploration into this matter and possible identification and study should be undertaken by the major universities of the countries which may have experienced this language contact, especially if it has been attested to by border residents that a portuñol variety of speech is being used. In turn these findings may be compared to the more complete studies undertaken on DPU in Uruguay. As always, a greater understanding may be obtained if there are more researchers with new ideas and points of view.



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[1] Many people usually refer to fronterizo as portunhol, but I think they almost always are thinking about a Spanish speaker attempting to speak Portuguese. This is not really the case with fronterizo. It is a dialect or linguistic variation spoken by some as their first language although the influence of standard Spanish and Portuguese is obviously inevitable.


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